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Coronavirus Surge Puts British Hospitals Under Tremendous Stress


We're going to turn now to the United Kingdom, which is under another national lockdown to combat a surge in coronavirus cases. COVID-19 deaths in the U.K. are now approaching a loss of civilian life not seen in Britain since World War II. Paul Hunter is a professor and epidemiologist at The University of East Anglia.

PAUL HUNTER: The last few weeks have been pretty dire, to be honest. And the impact on the health service in particular has been very hard.

MARTIN: For more, we're going to turn to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Tell us more about the conditions right now in hospitals there.

LANGFITT: They're really bad. I think they're worse than we've seen so far - 35,000 COVID patients in hospitals right now, more than 1,200 dying a day. That's a record level. Take Northern Ireland hospitals. They're almost completely full. Over the weekend, there were people in the hospitals, administrators were actually advertising on social media asking for off-duty health workers to come in. One official up there said the hospitals are facing into the abyss.

Now here in London, it's not a lot better. Khajun Kantha (ph), I was talking to him earlier. He works in an intensive care unit here, and he said where he is, there are times where they're running out of the oxygen that they use when they're transporting patients around the hospital. Now, this is what he said.

KHAJUN KANTHA: The most number of admissions is much higher now than it was back in March last year when it was the peak. We're now seeing a virus that is more transmissible, but also you don't have the same lockdown spirit that we had back in the first lockdown in 2020, which means that we're expecting to see more and more patients.

LANGFITT: Now, Rachel, I should add, this hasn't just been bad for patients. It's also taken a huge toll on health care workers here, as it has in the States. There's a study out this morning from King's College London, found nearly half of people working in intensive care units during the first wave, when they were surveyed, they reported symptoms of severe anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and even drinking problems.

MARTIN: So - I mean, how has it gotten this bad? I mean, we heard the doctor up there saying people are just worn down by all the restrictions, so they're not being as safe as they were earlier in the pandemic. Is that what's largely to blame?

LANGFITT: That's one factor. I mean, he's absolutely right. I think people are burned out by lockdown. Police are still breaking up parties and card games. Another point is that the variant has been a huge factor. It's as much as 70% more infectious.

And the other thing here is that the U.K. never really developed an effective test, track and trace system, which is kind of astonishing considering how long we've been dealing with that here. In other countries, you see systems where they're - people are on the phone all the time. They're following up with people, making sure they're quarantining. We don't really have that here. And again, Paul Hunter, who you were just listening to out of The University of East Anglia, this is the point that he made.

HUNTER: Having a text saying, yeah, you should isolate, isn't enough. Having somebody phoning you up and then telling you you should be self-isolating and then nothing else happens, isn't enough. And that's been really at the heart of why we haven't been able to control the epidemic.

MARTIN: So, I mean, out of that, I hear him saying there needs to be more accountability, that people - there needs to be more mechanisms to ensure that people are abiding by these restrictions. But that's - that rubs up against civil liberties issues, right?

LANGFITT: It does. I mean, they have emphasized that, but it also rubs up against competence. I mean, this system - test, track and trace - has got to work in order to finally get out of this. The other thing - an answer to this is, frankly, the vaccine. The government here has delivered 2.3 million doses, hoping to get out 14 million later on. But it's not coming fast enough.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt from London.

Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.